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Mark Zuckerberg’s $300 million donation to protect elections must overcome Facebook’s past

One of Zuckerberg’s largest-ever gifts became an immediate flashpoint in the debate over billionaire philanthropy.

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan at the White House in 2015.
Molly Riley/AFP via Getty Images

Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, are donating $300 million to protect American elections. It is one of the couple’s largest-ever single gifts, meant to bolster democracy during a pandemic. But it’s also one that critics say is brimming with irony given Facebook’s past failures in protecting the integrity of elections.

The Facebook chief said on Tuesday that he had sent the money to two civic organizations which in turn will direct it to state and local election officials so they can prepare for an unprecedented Election Day. The coronavirus pandemic has caused many states to radically shift — on short notice — how they will administer elections to ensure safety. A majority of Americans say they are anticipating that they will vote early or by mail this year.

The majority of the gift, $250 million, will go to the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit popular with many tech philanthropists, which will then regrant the money to local election officials so they can recruit poll workers, supply them with personal protective equipment, and set up drive-through voting. Another $50 million heads to the Center for Election Innovation & Research to be distributed to Secretaries of State across the country.

The money does not come from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, their joint philanthropy, but is a personal donation.

“Election officials across the country are working hard to ensure that everyone can vote and every vote can be counted,” Zuckerberg said, “and we want to help make sure they have the resources they need to do this.”

And while the money may be sorely needed, the announcement of the gift on Tuesday emerged as an immediate flashpoint in the simmering debate over billionaire philanthropy and whether donations are the best way to enact change. That’s because, to many on the left and to Facebook critics more broadly, it is Zuckerberg’s company that has harmed democracy by tolerating hate speech, failing to curtail disinformation, or allowing Russian operatives to mess with the 2016 election.

The fact that this criticism even exists is revealing. In an earlier era, a huge donation from Zuckerberg might be greeted with whoops and hollers, like his famous $100 million gift to Newark schools a decade ago. Even the creation of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, just dating back to 2015, was largely a PR win for the couple.

But in today’s America, where Zuckerberg is a pariah to many progressives and where billionaire gifts are scrutinized much more closely, the reaction was more complicated.

Here’s Raffi Krikorian, who has long worked at the intersection of tech and politics:

And here’s Tara McGowan, the head of one of the Democratic Party’s largest outside groups that has raised big money from Silicon Valley donors:

Facebook has stressed that it has learned the lessons from 2016 and is arguing that it is much better prepared for this fall. Alongside the announcement of the gift — and perhaps with an eye to this predictable criticism — Zuckerberg pointed out Facebook’s pledge to register 4 million voters and promote information on matters like vote-by-mail to its users.

Election officials were nevertheless ecstatic about the gift. Michigan’s secretary of state called it a “game changer.” Ohio’s said the money would “go a long way” to ensuring the public’s confidence in the vote.

But as always, two things can be true at once about billionaire philanthropy: The money may indeed fill an urgent gap that makes our lives better, but giving away these large sums represents a relatively minor component in the total assessment of how each billionaire is shaping our world.

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